School & District Management

Spellings’ Resume Brings New Twist to Secretary Post

January 19, 2005 7 min read
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Visiting a high school in suburban Washington last week, President Bush offered an introduction he’s used many times for his outgoing secretary of education, Rod Paige. Mr. Bush stressed that, four years ago, he decided to pick someone on the “front lines” of education—a district superintendent—for the top federal job in the field.

That contrasts with his choice of Margaret Spellings, whose experience has been behind the scenes, to succeed Secretary Paige. Ms. Spellings, now the president’s chief domestic-policy aide, appears headed for easy confirmation in the Senate, possibly as soon as this week, when President Bush begins his second term.

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The Secretaries and Their Backgrounds

She has won strong votes of confidence from both sides of the political aisle, as well as from national education groups. And yet, at least some educators outside the Washington political and policy orbit have misgivings about the background she’ll bring to the job.

“Why would the president select a person who is not a teacher, or a superintendent, or a principal, or someone trained in the education field?” Diane Schroeder, a reading specialist and language arts teacher in Greenfield, Wis., said last week.

“[T]o understand the workings of schools, especially teachers, parents, and the needs of children, the secretary of education should have had experience as an educator,” said Cheryl F. Blue, an assistant superintendent in Plattsmouth, Neb. “Sitting in an office does not give the individual the perspective of … the challenges facing schools today.”

Ms. Spellings would not be the first education secretary without a professional experience in schools or academe. Take Richard W. Riley, a popular education secretary who served for eight years under President Clinton. He had made a name for himself as an “education governor” in South Carolina, but had not been an educator.

And by no means is there a consensus even among working educators that Ms. Spellings may not be “highly qualified,” to use the label the No Child Left Behind Act expects the nation’s teachers to merit.

“I have heard that Ms. Spellings is a sharp woman who listens well and has the ability to make informed decisions,” said Carol Kelly, an adjunct education professor at the University of Denver in Colorado and a former school principal. “It appears she is quite well versed in today’s educational issues. I don’t believe that lack of an advanced degree or experience as an educator should disqualify her from serving as U.S. secretary of education.”

A Department of Education spokeswoman declined an Education Week request to interview Ms. Spellings, saying the president’s nominees would not grant interviews before confirmation.

Veteran Bush Aide

Ms. Spellings, 47, was named in November to replace Secretary Paige, who tendered his resignation shortly after the 2004 election.

She was considered a principal architect of Mr. Bush’s education agenda during his first term, especially the No Child Left Behind Act, his flagship initiative. Ms. Spellings has been the president’s top domestic-policy adviser since he entered the White House, but their work together goes back much further.

When he was the governor of Texas, Ms. Spellings was his chief education aide, and she worked on his election campaigns, including his 2000 presidential bid. Before that, she was the chief lobbyist for the Texas Association of School Boards. She also worked on education matters as an aide in the Texas legislature.

President Bush walks with Margaret Spellings near the Oval Office last week before an education speech.

Ms. Spellings earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Houston. She would be the first U.S. education secretary without an advanced degree.

The nominee is known to have a close working relationship with the president, and she is expected to have his ear in a way that observers say Secretary Paige never has. That access could be an important plus to her serving in the Cabinet.

Yet, as with several other of President Bush’s second-term Cabinet nominees, moving a White House aide to become an agency head has its downsides. Some analysts have noted that the president won’t benefit from the fresh perspective that might be offered by a new face with new ideas.

When explaining his choice of Ms. Spellings in November, Mr. Bush emphasized his personal experience working with her.

“I’ve known Margaret Spellings for more than a decade,” he said. “I have relied on her intellect and judgment throughout my career in public service.” (“President Picks a Trusted Aide for Secretary,” Nov. 24, 2004.)

He highlighted her work with him at the White House and the governor’s mansion, as well as her other experience in Texas.

Ms. Spellings won unanimous approval on Jan. 6 from the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, with enthusiastic backing from key Democrats.

At her confirmation hearing earlier that day, she said: “From parent to policymaker, I have seen education from many angles, and often been in the other person’s shoes.”

Ms. Spellings also stressed that she would pay close attention to the concerns of educators and other stakeholders in education.

But Charles A. Bloomfield, the principal of Lehigh Valley Christian High School in Allentown, Pa., has expressed dismay about Ms. Spellings’ credentials.

“I have to wonder why the education community isn’t protesting loudly that the new secretary is a person with just a bachelor’s degree, and that in political science, not education,” he wrote in a letter to Education Week, published in the Jan. 5 issue. “Too bad. One would think that the position would require advanced and related academic credentials.”

Two former education secretaries interviewed last week suggested that such degrees and experience are not necessarily a recipe for success.

Shirley M. Hufstedler, who served as the first education secretary, from 1979 to 1981 under President Carter, emphasized the primary importance of political and management skills.

“Part of that includes how much time she has spent to become really savvy on what goes on [Capitol] Hill, or inside the [Washington] Beltway,” said Ms. Hufstedler, 79, a former federal appellate judge who is now a lawyer in private practice in Los Angeles. “That’s a big help. … She’s not going to be teaching.”

Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, a Republican who was education secretary from 1991 to 1993 under President George H.W. Bush, recalled his experience early on as secretary.

“One of the things I found in my first Cabinet meeting in 1991 was that the education secretary sits at the end of the Cabinet table, and is the last to be evacuated in case of an emergency,” he said. The senator suggested that Ms. Spellings’ long-standing association with Mr. Bush is a major asset that will ensure education “stays on the front burner with the president.”

“I think Margaret will be an excellent education secretary,” said Sen. Alexander, 64. “She knows and understands [the president’s] education policies better than almost anyone. Two, she has had experience on the ground in Texas with the school boards’ association and with Governor Bush.”

Secretary Paige, despite having been a longtime education administrator, has sometimes ruffled feathers in the education world, such as when he referred to the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union, as a “terrorist organization” because of its efforts to resist the No Child Left Behind law. He later apologized for the remark.

Unknown Quantity

Amy Stuart Wells, an education professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, said that Ms. Spellings “seems like an improvement over Paige, because she’s more conciliatory.” Ms. Wells said she has been impressed, for instance, with the secretary-designate’s language about educators as professionals.

“Based on what she has said, she just has more respect for the complexity of public education,” Ms. Wells said. “I don’t think she’ll be calling the teachers’ association a terrorist group.”

Ms. Spellings’ experience with the Texas school boards’ group was encouraging to Ms. Wells, who noted that such work requires understanding and responding to a diverse constituency.

“You have to think about the issues from different perspectives,” she said.

To some educators, Ms. Spellings remains something of a mystery.

“Margaret Spellings is an unknown to many in North Dakota,” said Justin J. Wageman, an education professor at North Dakota State University in Fargo. “From what I read and hear, however, she seems to have a solid reputation as an individual who will reach out to diverse groups, while still maintaining the current administration’s stance on the issues.”

Julie Blaha, a middle school teacher in Champlin, Minn., said she and her colleagues really haven’t given much thought to the person poised to be the next leader of the federal Department of Education.

“I haven’t heard one colleague comment on [her confirmation]. Not one,” said Ms. Blaha. “When it comes right down to it, as long as George W. Bush is president, I think most teachers expect things to continue down the path blazed” by Secretary Paige.

Ms. Blaha, who was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention last year, added: “I hope Ms. Spellings will take the time to seek out and listen to those of us on the front lines of education, not just those Beltway insiders.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 19, 2005 edition of Education Week as Delivering the Message


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